At the end of 2019, I was selected to participate in CitéElles with dozens of women around Montreal. We were invited to get a closer look and understanding of what it’s like in the life of a Montreal city councilwoman through a simulation. This would also help demystify municipal politics to women and encourage them to run for office. I was really excited because it was a chance to learn more about the roles of a city councillor with respect to their constituents but also within the structure of the council and their respective parties. We learned details like the salary tiers, what the differences in power and responsibilities were between borough councillor, city councillor, borough mayor, and city mayor. In early 2020, all the women participants were called to city hall for a meet and greet with each other and with a few elected officials after a live council session. I looked around the room and saw we were an excellent bunch of diverse women from every borough, different age groups, all walks of life. They did a really good job selecting us, I remember thinking to myself.
We went home after this first meeting and started to learn our case work, study our roles and prepare what to say for the simulation that was supposed to start in March of 2020. Naturally, we did not get to go back to city hall since the world went into lockdown. Instead, we were invited to a day-long zoom event that began with a panel of leaders in the council from across parties, followed by small breakout groups of participants with 1 or 2 elected officials for Q&A sessions. To my not-so-surprise, they invited the leader of the administration, François Limoges, to represent his party (Projet Montreal) in the panel alongside the leader of opposition and member of Ensemble Montreal, Karine Boivin-Roy, and Suzie Miron the president of the municipal council. The panel was disappointing, firstly, because M. Limoges did a lot of the talking on a panel that was supposed to be about the female perspective and experience in municipal politics. Secondly, the questions in the chat from participants were answered incredibly superficially and in very stereotypical ways. For example, when they were asked about the biggest challenges of being a woman in politics, the answer was that you didn’t get to tuck in your kids at night sometimes. My eyes rolled so hard. There was no mention of how expectations are different when you’re a woman in politics, how the media treats you differently, nothing about double standards. Just kids because that’s universal, y’know? The small group sessions were also somewhat hard to navigate because the councillors found it really hard to talk about the barriers women of colour face when it comes to running for office - because out of the 3 WOC in city council, there were no councillors of colour to speak to a group of participants that was largely racialized... Instead, we were told that sometimes you just have to put all your savings into the campaign and go for it. It’s really a matter of do you want it enough, the barrier is you, really. Awesome.
This brings me back to my post from last week, because I remember in 2017 seeing a lot of diverse candidates running, but when I look at the Ville de Montreal website there is a serious imbalance between the number of diverse candidates promising fresh perspectives and the number of seasoned politicians. The experience I had with CitéElles left a sour taste in my mouth because they were priming these women to run for office without offering any tangible guidance, advice or direction that took their cultural, socio-economic, professional identities and barriers into consideration. It just felt misleading and tone-deaf. This year, Montreal has seen a record number of not only diverse candidates, but also first time candidates, in the municipal race. That had me excited and also worried because diverse candidates are constantly tokenized by parties to attract media attention on their do-good intentions. 2021 felt like it was going to be the same, and to some extent, when it came to campaign support, it still was. However, a lot of progress has been made in the 2021 results that I can’t just turn a blind eye to. Mayor Valerie Plante won her seat for a second time, defeating Denis Coderre, and named Dominique Ollivier as the president of the Executive Committee. Mme Ollivier is not only an extremely accomplished individual, with a rich background in community and public engagement who served as the head of the Office de consultation publique de Montréal for seven years, she will also be the first black woman to chair the Executive Committee. This is already a HUGE step forward from 2017’s committee fiasco - and I gotta say, I am excited again.
This appointment was only the first of many fresh faces coming to City Hall In politics, other than visible diversity, the diverse background (age, socio-economic background, religious, cultural, professional, etc.) of the politicians make it so the governance and representation of residents are closer to what the communities want and need. And with the boom of first time candidates throwing their hats into the ring this year, we were bound to get some new people elected. Starting close to home: Gracia Kasoki Katahwa, a first time politician and former nurse, beat out the seasoned Lionel Perez by only 83 votes for the seat of Borough Mayor in Côte-des-Neiges-Notre-Dame-de-Grâce. “We made history!” is not a sentence to be taken lightly, especially since Katahwa will be the first black woman to hold this seat in council. Stephanie Valenzuela, a community organizer, became the first Filipina-Canadian councilwoman in Montreal’s history, winning in the district of Darlington. In the Plateau-Mont-Royal, both first time candidates Marie Sterlin, a long-time resident and book author, and Laurence Parent, a member of the STM board of directors since 2017 and wheelchair user for 20 years, won the city counciLlor and borough counciLlor seats respectively. On the other side of town, my fellow CitéElles participant and former lawyer, Alba Stella Zúñiga Ramos was elected as city counciLlor in the Louis-Riel district. These examples stood out because they reflect what I was aching to see in politics, but this is not where the diversity of the new municipal council ends. It will take me some time to compare and contrast the new council members from the previous one to analyse where the new faces have been added and whose perspective they are replacing, for better or worse.
What I am seeing the more I plunge into the election results is that the boroughs identified as party strongholds, districts that are known to always vote in favour of a certain party, were strategically used by some parties to place new diverse candidates in the efforts to get them elected into office. This can happen when the community has a strong allegiance to the party and not necessarily to the candidates running. Some parties, however, don’t apply this strategy, and in some cases they run diverse candidates in districts and boroughs they have never had a chance of winning before and don’t offer additional or even adequate support for their candidate’s campaign - that’s what we saw in 2017. Often when pressed about the lack of coaching and campaign support for their diverse, first time candidates, parties argue they run dozens of candidates around the city and resources are tight. You know, the intentions are there, but the means are not.
So what would be a solution to making sure that diverse candidates, fresh faces, new perspectives don’t get hung out to dry by parties tokenizing them in order to show they are buying into the diversity hype? I know there has to be some solid internal shaking up for each party to see who is at the head, what are they doing to implement the feedback from their diverse candidates that pile up at every public citizen’s consultation and how that implementation is being carried out come election time. There has to be some structures in place that can hold parties accountable to how they treat and support their candidates, and how their resources are being distributed among districts. Even after they are elected, there are systemic changes necessary to ensure that there is never only one way for a politician to be and that politicians from all walks of life feel encouraged, valued, and able to contribute in the governance of their city. I am open to learning more about realistic and innovative methods of achieving true diversity and inclusion in politics, this is a field that fascinates me and will inform a lot of my upcoming work. I hope you’re staying for the ride!